Theatre of Blood

Director: Douglas Hickox
Screenplay: Anthony Greville-Bell
Stars: Vincent Price (Edward Lionheart), Diana Rigg (Edwina Lionheart), Ian Hendry (Peregrine Devlin), Harry Andrews (Trevor Dickman), Coral Browne (Miss Chloe Moon), Robert Coote (Oliver Larding), Jack Hawkins (Solomon Psaltery), Michael Hordern (George Maxwell), Arthur Lowe (Horace Sprout), Robert Morley (Meredith Merridew), Dennis Price (Hector Snipe), Milo O'Shea (Inspector Boot)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1973
Country: UK
Theatre of Blood DVD Cover

William Shakespeare is probably the most sadistically violent author to still be taught on a regular basis in public schools. Dressed up in undeniably beautiful poetry, his plays features a litany of brutal murders and atrocious deeds, from stabbings, to beheadings, to mutilation, to cannibalism, not to mention all the black magic, treachery, and illicit sex. Worried adults who jump on the bandwagon to condemn everything from slasher movies to Harry Potter generally (and probably consciously) overlook the works of Shakespeare because his name is one of the most hallowed in all of English literature.

This is why it was such a deviously brilliant idea to take the works of Shakespeare and use them as the basis for a hammy, gory horror movie whose sole purpose is to visualize some of the Bard's most gruesome atrocities on-screen in glorious, dripping color. In Theatre of Blood, the hammiest of all great B-horror movie stars, Vincent Price, plays Edward Lionheart, a less-than-highly regarded Shakespearean actor who decides to get his revenge on all the snooty critics who panned his performances over the years and denied him a richly deserved (in his mind, anyway) Drama Critics' Circle award by killing them one-by-one using methods from Shakespeare's plays.

So, ala Julius Caesear, one critic is stabbed to death multiple times on March 15th ("Beware the ides of March"), another has his head sawed off while in bed with his wife as in Cymbeline, and, in a particularly nasty episode, Lionheart uses Titus Andronicus as his model to force a critic to eat a pie made out of his two beloved poodles (whom he refers to as his "babies"). Each murder is carefully set up by Lionheart and an army of homeless people whom he has molded into an actor's troupe that follows his every command. Lionheart is single-minded in his vengeance—it is his last great performance, a stunning piece of live theater taken to absurd extreme—and he is always sure that the offending critic is made well-aware of not only who his killing him, but by what literary method.

Director Douglas Hickox (Zulu Dawn) is well aware of the silliness of the material, not to mention that it is only a slight twist on another ghoulishly comedic revenge flick made a few years earlier with Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Thus, he wisely allows the movie to play straight, so that the inherently gruesome comedy rises naturally from the over-the-top scenarios and Price's fantastically campy performance.

Theatre of Blood is a real showpiece for Price, as he not only gets to don various disguises in order to trick his victims (the best being an effeminate hair stylist with a huge afro), but he gets to recite large chunks of Shakespeare's dialogue. For Lionheart, Shakespeare is not just a playwright, but a way of life (he refuses to stage anything but the Bard's works), and Price seems to have absorbed the melodramatic fanaticism that often accompanies bad performances of Shakespeare's work. Lionheart may be the worst Shakespearean actor of all time, but he lives under the delusion that he is the best, and Price has a great deal of fun playing the character in the void between what he believes himself to be and what he actually is.

Several other notable character actors have nice turns, as well. Diana Rigg, Miss Emma Peel herself from The Avengers, plays Lionheart's devoted daughter, who, like everyone else, believes that her father is dead after throwing himself into the Thames a year earlier when he was denied the critics' prize. The only critic to gain any real sympathy is Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), but that may be because he is on-screen so much of the time and is able to develop a character beyond the snobbish caricatures embodied by the other critics (even their names— Snipe, Sprout, Larding—drip with malicious cruelty).

Theatre of Blood isn't particularly suspenseful because it gives us most of the information up front, but that's not the game it's playing. Rather, the murders are the centerpiece, and the twisted delight the movie offers is the inventive ghoulishness by which they will be carried out (especially once the police catch on, Lionheart has to be more and more creative in getting the critic-victim alone and away from his police protector). Theatre of Blood is hardly a great horror movie, but it is inventive and enjoyable, and it makes the most of a great premise.

Theatre of Blood DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioDolby 2.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish, French, Spanish
SubtitlesFrench, Spanish
SupplementsOriginal theatrical trailer
Distributor Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

Unfortunately, the image quality on this DVD is not particularly good. Part of this is due to the shape of the source print, which appears to have faded some over time and is marred by noticeable scratches and dirt. The transfer is not aided by the fact that it is not anamorphically enhanced, which cuts down on the much-needed resolution. Presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, much of Theatre of Blood looks murky and ill-defined (this is especially true of the scenes shot in the dimly lit Putney Hippodrome, the crumbling theater in which Lionheart and his posse live). Detail and color look fairly good in bright sunlight, but darker scenes are more problematic.

The Dolby 2.0 monaural soundtrack sounds good throughout. While limited in range, it has a pleasantly clear sound, and dialogue is always audible.

The only supplement included is an original theatrical trailer, which is presented in severely cropped pan and scan (when the names of the supporting actors are listed on-screen, several letters from each name are chopped off on both sides).

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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